studio visit with andrea higgins

this is a portrait of first lady pat nixon by andrea higgins.

several years ago, higgins became interested in representing people by painting textiles from their wardrobes. fabrics are fundamental to the aesthetics of a culture and for higgins, a style of dress can be as evocative as the representation of a face. first, she did a group of paintings — glen plaids, herringbones and tweeds — that her grandmother had worn. the paintings were abstract and optical and very familiar. for higgins, they represented “the look” of her grandmother and inspired memories of her. every fiber was represented by a brush stroke and each stroke was built up, one color upon another, layer over layer, to created a three-dimensional mark. in a sense, the images are woven of paint.

so actually, the first two images aren’t full portraits… they’re detail shots from paintings to give you a sense of the surface and labor inherent in this work and the relationship these paintings have to weaving. this is the full “portrait” titled “pat”:

and the dress pat wore to her daughter tricia’s wedding that inspired the portrait:

higgins’ “presidents’ wives” series was exhibited at the san francisco museum of modern art in 2003. since then, higgins has been working on portraits of characters from novels. in portraits of characters from books, she’s added another layer of abstraction and additional burden of labor to her paintings. because the characters exist first in the mind of the author, then that of the reader, there are no images from which to extrapolate. instead, she thoroughly researches the particular type of fabric from the specific era and society the character inhabited. the characters she portrays are particularly conscious of what they are wearing and what it says about them.

a close up of george babbit’ts brown suit, from sinclair lewis’ novel of the same name:

and the crettone in which george’s mistress upholstered her sofa:

the unfinished painting on the easel is a representation of the striped trousers worn by dorian gray.

a detail showing the bottom layer of paint – the horizontal bands of dark gray – as the lighter gray marks get worked across the surface. this panel will be 1/2 of a diptych representing dorian gray.

in the process of painting hundreds of thousands of marks representing threads in a piece of cloth, higgins began thinking about the objects that appear in traditional portraiture. since the inception of portraiture, people have both carefully selected the apparel they would be memorialized wearing, and the objects they surround themselves with. those objects represent the the pursuits and interests of the sitter as well as their social status and aspirations.

holbein’s “the ambassadors” 1533, in the collection of the national gallery, london.

higgins became interested in a passage in oscar wilde’s “the picture of dorian gray” in which dorian is handed “a pile of letters, on a small tray of old sevres china” by his valet. wilde knew that an “old” or “soft paste” piece of porcelain would evidence dorian’s sophistication, taste and financial wherewithal. higgins researched the hand-painted decoration on 18th-century porcelain, which inspired this panel:

which is the other 1/2 of the diptych portrait of dorian gray. when completed, the panel representing gray striped morning suit trousers (the unfinished painting on the easel) will hang next to it.


this is a second portrait of dorian gray – a single panel. in this detail you can see how higgins handles paint as if she is painting on china.

and from the 14th-century japanese autobiographical novel, “the confessions of lady nijo” higgins is

painting from the following passage:

The next day, when the high priestess was to arrive, oxen handlers, messengers, and imperial guards were dispatched by the dowager empress to meet her.

GoFukakusa took special pains with his costume. He wore a yellow informal robe lined in green, with a design of burnet flowers worked into it, over a light violet gown bearing gentian flower crests, His light violet trousers were lined in green, and everything was carefully scented

At dusk her arrival was announced. The doors on the south side of the main room had been opened and dark gray curtained screens set out with smaller curtain stands inside. Soon after Empress Omiya received her, a court lady came to tell us: ‘The former High Priestess has arrived. This is an out-of-the-way place and I’m afraid our hospitality is sadly lacking, so please come to visit with her.’ GoFukakusa went at once, and as usual I accompanied him, carrying his sword.

historical images of “gentian flower crests” and brocade which influence the patterns higgins will work into the green and violet painted panels are pinned to the studio wall.

and this passage:

About this time the Kamakura government revealed its official displeasure over the breach between the two retired emperors and suggested a conciliatory visit, with Kameyama calling upon GoFukakusa. This prompted an elaborate discussion as to whether Kameyama should view the gardens or watch a kick ball game. GoFukakusa turned to Lord Kanehira and asked, “How shall we entertain him? What would be appropriate?”
Sake might properly be served before matters are too far along,” he replied. “Then, in the middle of the kickball game, when he is resting, some persimmons in sake would be appropriate. It would be suitable for one of the court ladies to serve.”

“Which lady” GoFukakusa inquired.

“Lady Nijo is about the right age,” came the reply. “She would be a far from unfortunate choice.” And so I was assigned the task.

For the occasion i donned raw silk pleated trousers, a seven-layered gown in various shades of red, two outer garments — one crimson, one yellow lined in green — and a light green formal jacket. underneath i wore two sets of small-sleeved gowns: a three-layered set in red and pink shades of brocade and a two layered set in chinese brocade.

andrea higgins will have a solo exhibition at my new york gallery 3o october – 2o december 2oo8.

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